Abe Foxman is wrong: suffering does not justify hatred

I had not intended to comment at all on the ridiculous controversy surrounding the construction of a Muslim community center near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but Abe Foxman, the head of the ADL, has left me no choice. Most of the opposition has come from the usual suspects: known racists, opportunistic politicians bereft of any sense of propriety and denizens of the quasi-xenophobic right such as Newt Gingrich. No surprises there. I am, however, surprised that the ADL, which has generally been quite good about religious and immigrants’ rights, and about hate crimes directed towards Arab and Muslim Americans, would join the chorus of opposition. But even that wasn’t enough to prompt me to add yet another voice to the shrill, silly ?debate? on this subject (especially silly because it’s pretty clear that with Mayor Bloomberg’s support, this building is in fact going to be built and when the dust settles the project will in all likelihood go forward without further incident).

What spurs me to this reluctant intervention is the logic Mr. Foxman used in defending his opposition to the project, which is explicitly designed to promote interfaith amity and is being run by an organization that, while certainly not my personal cup of tea, promotes as mainstream and moderate a version of Islam as one could hope for. Mr. Foxman is quoted in the New York Times as saying that, ?Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational.? He added that the families of the 9/11 victims’ ?anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.? This is an important moral and intellectual point that needs to be engaged immediately, because it’s so wrong and so dangerous. I’m not the greatest living expert on impulse control or self-restraint, but I feel absolutely compelled to make the following argument.

First of all, everyone of course is entitled to, and is probably continuously bombarded with, feelings that are irrational. If people weren’t irrational at some level we would never fall in love, commit acts of radical altruism and self-sacrifice, or be willing to sublimate our own most immediate and selfish personal interests for one version of the greater good or other. Human beings depend on these irrational affects, which are clearly in large part the product of evolutionary processes based on species survival. Without them, it’s unlikely humans would’ve survived, let alone thrived. Similarly, I doubt there’s a human being on the planet, if one is to be completely honest, who isn’t in the grip of negative, as well as positive, irrational impulses frequently during any given day. Who hasn’t been tempted to punch somebody in the face, grab someone else and kiss them, run another motorist off the road or some other ill-advised response to another person’s behavior or even simply presence? The whole process of child rearing and socialization is to explain, from the earliest age, to young children that these impulses, while they may be unavoidable, mustn’t be acted upon or often even expressed. Does the person deserve to be punched, and is it morally and legally reasonable to punch them? Is it plausibly acceptable to grab and kiss this individual and is there any basis for suspecting that it will be anything other than an unwelcome assault? Can there ever be a justification for running another motorist off the road except if that’s necessary in some scenario in which that driver is threatening the public safety? Almost always the answer to those questions will be no, so of course we don’t act on such impulses even when we, in my own case at least, frequently have them.

Mr. Foxman argues that victims of monstrous crimes such as the Holocaust or families of those murdered by the terrorists on 9/11 have a right to irrational feelings because of the extent of their injury and their grief. So far so good. As I explained above, everyone not only has irrational feelings, they have a right to those feelings, both positive and negative, because they are unavoidable. Victims of terrible crimes such as murder can be said to have greater grounds than most people for extreme levels of negative irrational affects such as rage aimed at those not responsible for the killings but in some other sense identifiable with the culprits. I’m not sure the fact that a murder is committed in the course of a larger and more monstrously widespread act such as a genocide as in the case of the Holocaust or an atrocity on the scale of 9/11 provokes or justifies greater levels of outrage, anger and grief in survivors and their families than any other murderer might. But they certainly have broader social and political significance because they are more likely to become the subject of the policy debate, or the parody of one which we are now having about the Islamic Center near Ground Zero.

Which brings us to the main point: people have the right to irrational feelings, especially since no one can control them, but they do not have the right to have irrational opinions, or at least no right to have those irrational opinions taken seriously by the rest of us. One can’t justify racism, collective guilt and bigotry based on crimes committed by some members of an identity community because one or one’s loved ones have been victimized by that crime. This is the crucial divide between thoughts and actions. We all have many thoughts, most of which we cannot control, and many of them are unworthy in one way or another. One cannot be held accountable, I think, for one’s unstated thoughts or unacted-upon impulses, whatever they might be and from wherever they may arise. The question is, always, what does one do and say, not what does one irrationally feel. The human thought process, especially when it comes to matters of deep emotion, is exceptionally complex and does not follow any clear or controllable patterns. One may easily feel many different contradictory things at any given moment that, if all given way to simultaneously, would render one entirely incoherent and possibly somewhat psychotic. No amount of victimization provides immunity or impunity from irresponsible words and deeds. Suffering is not necessarily ennobling, as some weird religious claims suggest (if so prisons would be the noblest environments in any given society, and they’re obviously not), but it needn’t be debasing either. Anger, even irrational anger, is understandable. Allowing it to give way to words and deeds that express bigotry, collective guilt and other plainly immoral and irresponsible interventions is not justifiable on the grounds of suffering.

After all, perhaps not everyone has been cruelly victimized in their life, but very many people have in one way or another, and it would be a very dysfunctional society or world that allowed a carte blanche for words and deeds of hatred and anger based on that victimization. We do not, after all, allow the relatives and friends of murder or rape victims to sit in judgment of accused defendants as members of juries. Judges must recuse themselves if they have an obvious bias. Acts of retribution against family members, or even those accused of the crime, are in themselves serious crimes. This is because the law recognizes that even the most understandable irrational affect based on victimization cannot be allowed to express itself either through unacceptable individual acts such as vigilante “justice” or, far worse, in the actions and policies of the state. Yet this essentially is what Mr. Foxman is advocating: that some of the relatives of the 9/11 victims who are allowing their understandable outrage to be expressed in indefensible generalized anger and condemnation of Islam and Muslims and to falsely and deeply irrationally equate Islam and Muslims generally with the terrorist culprits ought to have such special standing because of their suffering that public policy is actually built around it. It’s quite bizarre.

If we followed Mr. Foxman’s logic, vast numbers of people throughout the world would be ?entitled? to have irrational and bigoted opinions and have those taken seriously in questions of public policy and state behavior. It’s not only the victims of the Holocaust or 9/11 this could apply to. How about the victims of the arch swindler Bernie Madoff? The dispossessed and exiled Palestinian people, or those living under Israeli occupation for the past 40 years? The black South Africans who suffered for so long under apartheid? African-Americans with their own history of enslavement and abuse? The list is endless. Mr. Foxman’s logic not only leads to dreadful public policy, because it accepts not only the legitimacy but even the primacy of what he agrees is an irrational reaction to suffering, but if accepted as a generalized principle of acceptable human behavior, it would lead to endless civil strife, wars of hatred and vendettas between individuals, families, clans, tribes, societies and nations. In many cases it does, and many of the worst crimes in human history have been rationalized and motivated by this very sense of victimhood. To privilege any form of irrationality, especially in political or public policy terms is incredibly irresponsible and totally indefensible. But to embrace and promote the logic that underlies so much of the worst behavior people can indulge in out of a sense of victimhood is simply grotesque.